Sunday, December 18, 2011

Catalign Quarterly – Dec 2011

Catalign Quarterly is an attempt to put together insights relevant for fostering a culture of innovation in organizations. This is a first such issue.

There are five articles in this issue. The first two articles are insights from guest speakers at our innovation management workshop at IIMB last October. The first article summarizes how innovation program at Tanishq evolved over the last 7 years. The second one presents insights from Cognizant on how to build creative confidence. The third article is an inspiring narrative from Gyanesh Pandey, CEO of Husk Power Systems which is electrifying rural India (HQ in Bihar). Then there is a review of an excellent book called “Where good ideas come from” by Steven Johnson. Finally, we have the latest benchmark data on the idea management systems from INSSAN (Indian National Suggestion Scheme Association).

1. Managing innovation: journey of Tanishq, jewelry division of Titan

2. Building creative confidence: Insights from Sukumar Rajagopal of Cognizant

3. Gyanesh Pandey tells Husk Power Systems story of Bijli from Bhoosa

4. book review: “Where good ideas come from” by Steven Johnson

5. Benchmark data from INSSAN Excellence contest in suggestion schemes 2011

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Who improved the world more: Thomas Edison or Ramana Maharshi?

Steve Jobs visited India along with his friend Kottke in 1973 in search of a crash course on enlightenment. Unfortunately, one of most promising gurus of the time, Neem Karoli Baba, had died a few days before the duo made it to his Ashram in Kainchi in Uttarakhand. They met a few other babas but the crash courses didn’t turn out to be very effective. Steve recalls his realization at the end of the trip in his famous quote, “We weren’t going to find a place where we could go to for a month to be enlightened. It was one of the first times that I started to realize that may be Thomas Edison did a lot more to improve the world than Karl Marx and Neem Karoli Baba put together”.

Among the three people Steve mentioned I have no expertise on two: Karl Marx and Neem Karoli Baba. However, I have a huge respect for Thomas Edison – I consider him to be the father of systematic innovation and have written a dozen articles in this blog referring to Thomas Edison & his contributions. I also know a few things about another baba: Ramana Maharshi – who fits the bill of a spiritual teacher who didn’t do much, didn’t speak much, didn’t travel much, didn’t wear much etc. – I guess you get the picture. In this article I want to visualize a hypothetical tennis match between Thomas Edison and Ramana Maharshi where points are scored based on “improvement to the world”. Shall we begin?

Before we begin, it may be good to look at a few things that were common to both Edison and Ramana. First, both were school dropouts. Edison had 3 months of formal schooling while Ramana went to school till age 15. Second, both were gifted with deep sleep. Three, both gave more importance to experiential learning to knowledge-from-the-books. Now let’s turn to the differences especially in how much they “improved the world”.

Let’s start with Thomas Edison, for the simple reason that he is umpire-friendly. It is much easier to count the score. In a career spanning sixty one years (1868-1930) Edison filed 1093 patents. That makes a batting average of 1 patent every 20 days. He made huge contributions to bringing practical incandescent bulb, gramophone and movie camera to the world. He made several improvements to telecommunications and storage battery. His legacy General Electric is one of the largest and most admired companies in the world today. He has inspired countless innovators – most notable being Henry Ford who remained his lifelong friend and Steve Jobs. With such an impressive scoring line-up, the question should be more like “How many Ramanas do we need to match one Edison?” Nevertheless, let’s go ahead and give Ramana a fair chance.

Let’s look at Ramana’s “career” from the point he started living in a cave called Virupaksha Cave in 1900 on a mountain called Arunachala at Thiruvannamalai where his “not-doing-much” started. Ramana lived there for 16 years after which he and his disciples built an Ashram at the foothills of the same mountain where he lived for the rest of his life till 1950. Ramana mostly wore a cloth diaper and preferred silence to talking as a medium of communication. His notable contributions to worldly matters included cooking – he was the chief chef of the Ashram for several years and architecting the Ashram design. You must be thinking this doesn’t look like much of a match so far. Be patient. As we noted earlier, Ramana is not very umpire-friendly.

An important aspect of Ramana’s day-job was having dialogues with visitors to the Ashram – either through silence or through words. Some people would come from nearby places, others would come from places as far as US. I don’t know the total number of unique visitors who met Ramana. More importantly, was meeting Ramana making any difference? Sometimes ‘yes’ and sometimes ‘no’. Again this ratio of “yes-visitors” to “no-visitors” is not known. And even if we take the total number of “yes-visitors” to be a million (perhaps a gross exaggeration), Edison can win the match hands-down just with his light bulb. Well, on what basis do we give Ramana any points? So let’s ask, “What is the crux of his teaching?” At least we will give him some points for that and make this match less embarrassing.

This is where the game becomes really tricky. Because the crux of Ramana’s teaching is concerned with the umpire himself i.e. the scoring system in my mind. Ramana felt that the biggest problem in the world was that the umpire ("I") falsely identifies himself with the scoring system. Steve Jobs himself was a super-umpire. He not only had opinions, his opinions thrived on super-villains (like Bill Gates). However, I really appreciate Steve for an important and yet overlooked keyword in his quote: "may be". I would like to stay with "may be" until I really understand the "I who wants to keep the score" very well.

Hope you enjoyed the match!


I read Steve Jobs quote in “iCon: Steve Jobs, the greatest second act in the history of business” by Young and Simon, Wiley-India, 2008, pg 25.

For more on Ramana Maharshi, I recommend Arthur Osborne’s “Ramana Maharshi and the path of self-knowledge” or David Godman’s interview with Maalok.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Benchmark data from INSSAN Excellence Contest in Suggestion Scheme – 2011

Idea management systems exist in the organizations at different levels – process improvements (kaizen), new product development (NPD), new business development (NBD), Intellectual property management (IPR) etc. Indian National Suggestion Scheme Association (INSSAN) has been benchmarking the suggestion schemes in primarily manufacturing sector for the past 20 years. The latest bulletin (Sept-Oct 2011) presents the benchmarking data from 27 organizations for financial year 2010-11 – Automotive (6), Engineering (6), Fertilizers (7), Associated (6) and Steel (2). Mr. Sudhir Date has presented the highlights in the bulletin (pg 14).

As discussed in an earlier article, I try to view the innovation metric from following three perspectives: (1) idea pipeline (number of ideas & participation of employees) (2) idea velocity (rate at which ideas move forward) (3) batting average (net potential impact in savings / revenue). Let's apply this lens to the INSSAN 2011 data.

Idea pipeline: Ideas per person per year is an excellent proxy for idea pipeline. For the past few years TVS Motor consistently stands out for ideas per person per year metric. On an average, a TVS employee gives a suggestion almost every week (46 in a year) as compared to India average of once in 2 months (6.5). India average has been hovering around 5-6 for the past 5 years. Participation percentage varies from 22% in Fertilizer sector to 90+% in Steel and Auto sectors (see figure below). Steel and Auto sectors were the first in India to embrace suggestion schemes. So this is not surprising. More the participation, more sustainable is your process.

Idea velocity: Unfortunately we don't have a good data on this. Lowest lead time for evaluation of suggestion is definitely an indicator and Maruti’s performance of 2 days is commendable. However, we don't have average data on this and we can guess why.

Batting average: Suggestion schemes measures the impact primarily through savings. Savings per accepted suggestion is a good indicator. India average of Rs.19,681 makes a good case for running the suggestion schemes.

On an average 70% of the suggested ideas are implemented and that looks pretty healthy.

Following table shows the data sector-wise.

Let’s hope we get similar data for other types of idea management systems in India as well.

Related articles:

Idea management systems in India: Benchmark data from INSSAN 2005-2008

INSSAN 20th Annual convention: where shop-floor innovators are heroes

INSSAN convention: sources & types of innovations and a good practice

“Where good ideas come from” by Steven Johnson

“Where do good ideas come from?” This question is typically approached from two directions. One: What kinds of people create good ideas? Two: What kinds of environments create good ideas? Steven Johnson’s book “Where good ideas come from” approaches the question from the second direction and identifies seven patterns that recur in fertile environments. His TED talk gives a great overview. Let me articulate three of the seven patterns below:

1. Adjacent possible: In the year following the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, the Indonesian city of Meulaboh received eight incubators from a range of international relief organizations. By late 2008, when an MIT professor name Timothy Prestero visited the hospital, all eight were out of order – due to power surges, tropical humidity and lack of expertise to repair them. Prestero is an expert on robust designs and the founder of Design that Matters organization. He realized that designing an incubator in developing country wasn’t just about creating something that worked. It was also a matter of something that could be maintained by local people. Rosen, a Boston doctor, observed that small towns in Indonesia were able to repair the Toyota 4Runners. So Rosen approached Prestero with the idea: What if you made an incubator out of automobile parts? That is how NeoNurture incubator was born. It was doubly efficient because it tapped both the local supply of parts and the local knowledge of automobile repair.

Johnson observes that good ideas are like the NeoNurture device – they are inevitably constrained by the parts and skills that surround them. That is why encouraging prototyping is so important because it validates if we know what kind of spare parts to look for and whether we have the skills to put them together. Charles Babbage designed a programmable computer in 1837 but couldn't build a prototype in his lifetime (died: 1871) because the spare parts were simply not available. It wasn’t an “adjacent possible” idea for the time. Do you encourage prototyping? Do you make spare parts easily accessible?

2. Slow hunch: Charles Darwin wrote about his moment of epiphany on September 28, 1838 when he conceptualized the famous theory of natural selection. However, more than a century later, when a psychologist Howard Gruber went through the copious notes that Darwin had kept he realized that Darwin had been working on the key concepts from 1837 onwards. Sir Tim Berners-Lee designed the first prototype for sharing information with hypertext in 1980 at CERN. However, it is only in 1989 that he submitted the proposal for building world-wide web. The first web-site was build at CERN and put online on August 6, 1991.

Good ideas are more like slow hunches. They often mature by stealth, in small steps and fade into view. Does your organization encourage working on hunches?

3. Exaptation: What is common between the two innovations: Printing press and Jaipur foot? Both took a set of mature technologies in one domain, combined them to solve an unrelated problem. Exaptation is a trait developed in an organism optimized for a specific use but then it gets hijacked for completely different function. Johannes Gutenberg used the screw press technology used for making wines and made modifications to the metallurgy behind the movable type system to create a printing press. In case of Jaipur Foot, Dr. Promod Sethi and Ram Chandra a doctor-sculptor team looked at the retreading of a truck tire with vulcanized rubber in a roadside shop and applied it to create prosthetic legs – what is popularly known today as Jaipur foot.

Does your organization create a space for the "doctors" & "sculptors" to come together? Or does your organization encourage Chandras to visit new places like “cycle shops”?

I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in finding out “Where good ideas come from?” I am sure you will get a fresh perspective.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Building creative confidence: Insights from Sukumar Rajagopal of Cognizant

When you ask the question, “How many of you are creative?” to either students or employees in India, very few, perhaps only 20%-30% of people typically raise hands. Why is that? There is a school of thought which says that it is primarily a confidence problem. Ability to be able to speak up your idea in a meeting with managers / senior managers without fear of failure / ridicule is what is called “creative confidence”. Mr. Sukumar Rajagopal, Senior Vice President, Chief Information Officer and Head of Innovation at Cognizant, shared his insights on how to build creative confidence based on his experience of running a managed innovation program at Cognizant. He was one of the guest speakers at our workshop on innovation management at IIMB last month. How do you build creative confidence? Let’s look at a few of the insights Sukumar shared.

If you want to build creative confidence, breakthrough innovation is not a good place to focus

Organizations need all kinds of innovations: breakthrough, enhancing, sustaining etc. However, if you want more people to feel confident about how they can contribute to innovation, then breakthrough innovation is not the right place to focus. Why? First, breakthrough innovations are rare, they don’t happen very often. Second, breakthrough ideas create cognitive dissonance and hence early reactions are usually negative (see a study from Cornell). Robert Goddard, the father of modern rocketry was ridiculed in New York Times in 1921, “Professor Goddard does not know the relation of action to reaction and seems to lack the basic knowledge ladled out daily in high schools”. Note that this does not mean that breakthrough innovation is not important.

Each of us is empowered to implement ideas within our own area of work

When people suggest ideas related to areas where they don’t have any control, then most of them get ignored. This leads to frustration. Lack of empowerment to experiment is a major hurdle in moving ideas forward. Hence, ideas within your own area of work are excellent candidates where the employees can experiment without asking for anybody’s permission. Perhaps one can fail and still continue without worry of any punishment.

When small ideas are implemented, the idea authors build credibility

If you want people take your big idea seriously, you need credibility. How do you build credibility? One way to do it is by implementing small ideas first. If you say that over the last year I have implemented 7 ideas, chances are high people might take your potentially big idea seriously.

Direct creative energies at problems that have stakeholders & sponsors

When we go to people and say, “Give me all your ideas”, we will be inundated with thousands of ideas like “Cafeteria food should be like this” or “Give all of us laptops”. These ideas don’t go anywhere unless they address problems that have stakeholders and sponsors. And when nobody looks at your ideas, the idea authors will get frustrated. Hence it is better to launch idea campaigns with sponsored challenges and make sure that you will implement top 5 / 10 ideas.

Sukumar derives a lot inspiration from Toyota’s kaizen, a system through which employees implement millions of ideas every year. Percent of people who have submitted one or more ideas last year is a good indicator of the creative confidence in the organization.

Related article:

40 years, 20 million ideas: The Toyota suggestion system